Tilting At Windmills by Chris Green
There was always something about Karl Oscuro that didn’t fit. You couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was, but from the very first he seemed to be more than just the proverbial square peg. He had a pale complexion and always dressed in black, but then, so did many others. This was becoming a fashionable look around the campus, probably down to the influence of the Midnight television series. Everyone stayed up to watch Midnight.
Karl kept himself to himself and didn’t go for any of our organised activities. He didn’t even go to the Student’s Union, but then who could blame him? All those loud malingerers with inflated opinions of themselves. And the odious smell of Lynx mixed with beer. In lectures Karl always sat alone and when he spoke at all, which was seldom, he spoke softly, with no trace of an accent. He was tall and thin, but then my Uncle Angus was six feet seven and he was the most conventional man you could wish to meet. The word was that Karl listened to Bruckner and Mahler on his ipod, but none of us knew this for certain. None of us had got that close.
It was Louise who noticed it first. A group of us were leaving the Technology block in the late November sunshine. We were making our way in small groups or alone in the direction of the old gothic library building, not that any of us were going to the library. It was too early in the term for that. The Autumn shadows were long, but Louise saw to her alarm that Karl did not cast a shadow. She let out a silent scream, tugged at my arm and pulled me aside to point this out. I could see straight away what she was showing me. It was plain as the proverbial pikestaff. Karl had no shadow. All the other students’ shadows were behaving as they should, but Karl did not have one. My God! How was it we had not noticed this before? We were now nearly two months into the term.
Hanging back from the others so as not to draw attention to ourselves, we continued to silently register our horror. We did double takes and triple takes but each time we turned back, it merely became more apparent that Karl’s figure made no shadow. Why hadn’t the other students walking in the same direction spotted it? Karl was still only a few feet away from them. How could they be so unobservant? How had we been so observant for so long? Why could we see it now when the others still could not.
Louise and I made a decision there and then to keep this to ourselves for the moment, just in case. In campus life, embarrassment could take months to live down. Especially after our giant poodle sighting that turned out to be a tree. We did not want to be accused of tilting at windmills again.
I had an arts background but Louise had a science one.
‘What exactly is a shadow, I mean scientifically speaking?’ I asked. ‘Could there be something here we are missing?’
‘A shadow,’ Louise explained, ‘occurs when an opaque or translucent object lets say in this instance a human body blocks light.’
‘I think I get that much,’ I said.
‘As long as there is a light source there will be a shadow, Melanie,’ she continued. ‘Only transparent objects do not make shadows. The light passes straight through, you see.’
She carried on to tell me about umbra, penumbra and antumbra being three distinct parts of a shadow. And how Karl had none of these. The light must be passing straight through him as though he were transparent.
Louise and I decided to skip our early evening lectures and keep a low profile for the rest of the day while we tried to regroup our thoughts. We returned to our flat, situated in on the edge of the old town just a stone’s throw from the campus. In order to shut out as much of college life as possible, we turned off our phones. We did not want to be disturbed by Emma, or Amy or Jade blabbering on about Skins or Misfits, or even Tarquin or Hugh bringing round a cheap bottle of Shiraz and telling us how hot we were.
It is one thing seeing Karl without his shadow but that isn’t half so weird or scary as seeing Karl’s shadow without Karl. While we could not be sure that what we were seeing from our window moving stealthily across the courtyard under the street-light was Karl’s shadow, given the circumstances it did seem to us more than a possibility. The shadow was long and thin and distinctly Karl-shaped right down the shape of the drainpipe trousers and black leather biker’s jacket he was fond of wearing. It moved across the flagstones at walking pace until it was out of range of the light. But there was no Karl.
At first, we were completely freaked out. This was the stuff of The X Files. But we quickly realised we ought to find out what was going on. We needed a reality check here. Another quixotic gaffe would be disastrous.
‘Everyone should have a shadow,’ I said. ‘I have a shadow, you have a shadow. Why doesn’t Karl Oscuro have a shadow?’
‘Who knows?’ said Louise. ‘Perhaps it was a trick of the light.’
‘I know that you don’t think that,’ I said.
‘I guess you are right,’ said Louise.
‘So, we’ll follow him tomorrow and see where he lives,’ I said. ‘And introduce ourselves. He’s probably ……. very nice.’
We were offered our opportunity the following day. Karl was just leaving the campus by a side entrance into Bygone Street, striding out with his lumbering gait. The unseasonable late afternoon sun was once again behind him, but still he cast no shadow. There were not many people about, so Louise and I had to tail him from a respectable distance, so as not to arouse suspicion. Bygone Street turns into Yore Street and it was here that we lost him. It was not so much that he disappeared into thin air as there was a choice of several four storey nineteenth-century buildings into which he might have vanished. Divided into a warren of smaller units by exploitative landlords, this block would be housing perhaps hundreds of students. It would not have been easy to discover which one Karl had disappeared into, had it not been for the movement of a curtain on the lower ground floor of number 9. We caught a glimpse of the profile of a tall dark figure pulling them shut.
The following morning we lay in wait nearby, ready to accidentally bump into him. He recognised us and slowly we began to strike up a conversation with him as we walked to college. We chatted awkwardly about famous landmarks, motorcycles, and saxophones. We moved on to paintings. This was more fruitful ground. When I had time I liked to paint and it transpired Karl too was a keen amateur artist. He told us he had often visited the galleries since he had been here. He had a particular fondness for the work of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. He loved the provocative kitsch of Magritte’s paintings, the whimsical juxtapositions of everyday objects. He explained that Surrealism had been outlawed in his country. It was only since coming here that he had come across it. I asked him if he liked Dali. He hesitated in his reply. I wondered if this might be because of all the foreboding shadows in Dali’s paintings.
I needn’t have worried. At that moment, the sun broke through and gave us the opportunity we were looking for. Our shadows were there standing up to be counted, but Karl’s was conspicuously absent from the party. When we pointed out this out in the nicest possible way, Karl was unexpectedly forthcoming.
‘In the country I come from,’ he said. ‘It is not uncommon for people to lose their shadows.’
With this, Karl began to tell us horror stories of shadows being forcibly cut from their owners by unscrupulous surgeons, broken down and dissolved by ruthless experimental chemists or driven away by arcane psychiatric practitioners.
‘How awful,’ I said. ‘And something like that happened to you?’
‘No. It was different for me. I managed to keep my shadow, but ironically it left me the moment I stepped off the boat having arrived here,’ he said. ‘Not so much as a by your leave. Perhaps it thought its chances were not good and it became fearful of what might become of it if it stayed with me. So I have not had a shadow since I’ve been here. I have learned to live with this but I am aware that from time to time people like yourselves must notice. That is why I keep myself to myself.’
Louise and I looked at one another. Was the time right?
‘I think I may have seen your shadow,’ I blurted out.
Karl was visibly shaken. ‘You can’t have,’ he uttered. ‘That is impossible.’
‘Perhaps your shadow has come looking for you,’ said Louise.
‘Are you sure it’s mine? Where did you see it? Where was it? Tell me,’ said Karl, urgently.
‘It was long and lean and was the same shape and size as you in the clothes you are wearing,’ I said, gesticulating to him. ‘And, it was making its way across the courtyard beneath our flat in Yesterday Street. It was lit up by the streetlights.’
‘Where’s Yesterday Street?’ said Karl.
‘It’s on the other side of the campus about half a mile from here,’ I said. ‘It’s in the old town, close to our flat. We can take you there if you like.’
There is a network of cobbled streets, Tudor buildings and the ruins of a castle on our side of the campus. This was part of the original walled city and it is steeped in antiquity and folklore. For much of the day, the three of us explored the narrow roads and alleys searching for Karl’s shadow, sheltering occasionally from an unwelcome November rain shower. We all realised there was no chance of seeing a shadow while there were clouds overhead. Karl continued to open up and gradually we got to know him. We found out he had come to this country to escape a vicious regime in his own. He explained that back home there was a clan system in place and the ruling elite looked down on the Oscuro clan and persecuted them mercilessly.
‘Only to find the same here,’ I joked. ‘It can happen even in a democracy.’ Quentin Thief’s elitist government had just been re-elected with a large majority, with just 35 per cent of the vote. Daily we were getting announcements on how they planned to deal with ethnic minorities and the poor. Shadow surgery had yet to be suggested but Quentin Thief was not a man you could trust.
Late in the afternoon, the sun came back out. We sat on a bench on Antediluvian Street by the old preparatory school building, that Brycks and Mortimer Developments had acquired to convert into retirement apartments. We watched the long shadow’s of passers-by, all neatly in step with their owners. Suddenly we caught a glimpse of a rogue shadow, darting behind the stone wall between the museum and the old saddler’s. Was this the moment we had all been waiting for? Karl became excited at the sight of his shadow. Understandably so, this was the shadow that he thought he had lost for ever. He lapsed into his native tongue. As for Louise and I, we felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. We really had no idea what to expect.
No sooner had we got a fix on the shadow however than it vanished. Being two-dimensional, shadows can disappear behind other shadows or make their way into places that we cannot reach. But there were other questions demanding answers. Were we talking material world here, or was this the realm of the spirit world? Was any of this really happening? Here and now? There were many things that Louise felt we could no longer be sure of.
After keeping us on tenterhooks for what seemed like hours but may have been a matter of seconds, the shadow appeared again from its hiding place. To our greater astonishment, it was now accompanied by a second shadow. This one was of a female form. The two shadows began shadow dancing.
‘Oh My God! That looks like Valentina,’ said Karl.
‘Who?’ I asked.
‘Valentina. Valentina Kohl, a girl that I used to see back home. She was training to be a dancer. The rulers encouraged performing arts. This should have helped to protect Valentina. But unfortunately, like the Oscuros the Kohls too were a persecuted clan.’
‘And Valentina came over on the boat too, did she? Louise asked.
‘That’s the thing. I don’t know what happened to her. You see the Oscuros and the Kohls may have both been out of favour with the elite, but they were also rival clans. A bit like the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet by your William Shakespeare. Valentina and I had to meet in secret. When I knew I was leaving, I was hoping I would see her one last time, but the guards prevented it.’
‘If this is her then she may have come over too,’ I said.
‘I’m certain that it is her,’ said Karl.
‘Well, what are we waiting for?’ said Louise.
‘I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen here. I don’t know how to get my shadow to come back to me and I don’t know where I might find Valentina.’
While we wanted to see this as a half empty view, we conceded that he did have a point. Things had suddenly become more complicated.
‘Supposing you were able to find Valentina, then you and Valentina could try to recover your shadows together,’ I said
‘But how am I going to find Valentina?’ said Karl.
‘What about social media? Kohl is not a common name,’ said Louise.
‘I’m afraid that it is a common name in my country.’ said Karl. ‘I had a look on Facebook and there were nearly fifty Valentina Kohls.’
‘Well, there you go then.’ I said.
‘Don’t you think I didn’t try that,’ said Karl. ‘None of them were the right Valentina Kohl.’
‘We will help you,’ I said, but I had to admit I did not know where to start.
We thrashed out the possibilities and agreed that we would continue to meet, but Louise and I never saw Karl again, or his shadow. He vanished without a trace. No one seemed to know where he had gone. In fact, the few people we asked around the campus did not know who we were talking about. In the end to save ourselves more embarrassment we stopped asking. Karl did not even show when in another twist of fate Valentina Kohl turned up at our local pub, The Blind Poet. Her band, Chimera were fabulous. Valentina had a voice like the singer of the Cocteau Twins. And she danced like Kate Bush. As she danced, she cast a shadow under the stage lights.
We were able to speak to Valentina after the set. She had not heard of Karl Oscuro.
‘I do not know this Karl Oscuro,’ she said. ‘Is he a taxi driver maybe?’
I told her I did not think so unless he had done it as a summer job.
‘He is at college with us,’ said Louise. ‘At least, he was.’
‘I think that he has a good name, though,’ said Valentina. ‘Perhaps one of you is a writer.’
I don’t know what to believe anymore. When I start to think about it, strange things have been happening since that week back in July. Neither Louise or I have any recollection of the events of the week. To this day no one can explain what happened to us. All I can recall is that we were on a backpacking holiday in Morocco and our coach got lost in the desert. I do not even know why we were in the desert. We were travelling from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Desert was not on the itinerary. Something must have happened to take us off course. The whole week disappeared thus.
Louise sometimes questions whether we even went to Morocco. She says she does not remember being on a coach, has no recollection of Casablanca except that it was a film, and thinks Marrakesh is a song by Crosby Stills and Nash, whoever they are. She says if we were on a coach that got lost there would have been others to corroborate our story and it would have been on the news. She thinks we may have spent the week busking in a Paris subway. She says that she has a vague recollection of Sacha Distel giving us a 50 Euro note. When I tell her that Sacha Distel has been dead for over ten years, she says ‘Oh well, so it goes.’ It can be difficult to get a grip on reality sometimes.
Whatever really happened, since that week we have encountered all manner of weirdness, people walking through walls, the television switching itself on in the middle of the night, a caracal sleeping at the foot of the bed, that sort of thing. I came home one day to find a cumulus cloud in the front room. Louise tells me the rubber plant sometimes talks to her. I suppose we should be prepared for occasional surprises until these anomalies sort themselves out.
‘Oh my God, is that a porcupine in the fridge, eating the cottage cheese?’
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved